Grace in the wilderness


[A sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, 22 June 2014]

SCRIPTURE:    Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

The Christian calendar
Today is the second Sunday after Pentecost; it is also the beginning of a new season in the Christian calendar.

Is that particularly important? Does it really matter? And more to the point, why should we or the world care. We have much more pressing issues: desperate unemployment, HIV/AIDS and the evils of poverty and crime. The Christian message of love and hope, and of salvation itself, is lost in the noise and turmoil.

What do the seasons of the church matter?

When Jesus spoke about proclaiming the message from the rooftops, he wasn’t talking about the Christian calendar. But the themes and the readings set down for each Sunday do help us understand who we are and what we have to say to the world.

During the past six months, the Bible readings in the lectionary have led us through the great events of the New Testament: the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit.

Those are the dramatic events we know and love and sing about.

Ordinary time
But now we enter a long season lasting five months, where we simply number the Sundays after Pentecost all the way to Advent, four Sundays before Christmas. Catholics call this ‘ordinary (or numbered) time’.

During these weeks, instead of looking at the great events of Jesus life, we look at the way Jesus lived his life as we follow his work and teaching through one of the Gospels.

John van der Laar says this a time for ‘a change in our focus from God’s Story to our story – how we will now live our story differently because of who God is and what God has done; how our lives will become one with God’s story as we seek to follow Jesus.’ (Changing Seasons – So What?’ Sacredise)

But it’s not the first-century Jesus we are trying to follow. It is Jesus living here and now in this poverty-stricken, AIDS-smitten, educationally challenged, wounded and weeping country of ours.

Because this is where we are called to live – not within these four walls, but out there, in the world, today.

Matthew 10
And today’s readings? Well, in Matthew 10, Jesus prepares his disciples for the mission field, and he tells them (and us) what following him will involve. And it doesn’t make easy reading.

Jesus says that people will swear at us – and they’ll mean it.
Then, as if to comfort us, Jesus says, ‘But don’t worry about them. What can they do to you? They can only kill you.’
‘Oh!’ we might say. ‘I wasn’t planning on getting killed.’
‘But if you want to follow me,’ Jesus will tell us, ‘you must lay down your life and take up your cross.’
Because the cross is not just a heavy burden, it’s an instrument of torturous death. If you take up your cross, you’re going to die.

So, living a Jesus life here in 21st century Africa means we are going to be sworn at, by people who really mean it, and it means giving up our lives. The end is not a nice comfortable seat in church and a friendly Bible study. Far from it. Jesus tells us that he has not come to bring peace, but a sword. Families and friendships will be torn apart. Your enemy isn’t the devil, he tells us; your enemy will be among your family and friends.

‘This isn’t what I signed up for’
What happened?

What about all the ‘peace and goodwill’ the angels sang about at Christmas?
What about the warm fuzzy feelings the Magi experienced when they gathered around the baby?
What about the love poured out on the cross? What about Jesus dying in our place?
What about the power of the Holy Spirit, of the fruit of love and joy and peace?
Where is the Good News in all of this?

No wonder John van der Laar said when he read this passage, ‘this isn’t what I signed up for’. (‘I Didn’t Sign Up For This’, Sacredise)

A two-a-penny sparrow
But that’s not all Jesus says in Matthew 10.

He also tells us that not even a two-a-penny sparrow is out of God’s sight and care. And he even knows how many hairs are left on your head.

And, what’s more, ‘if you tell the world you belong to me,’ Jesus says. ‘I will do the same for you before my Father in heaven.’
‘This one belongs to me,’ he’ll say. ‘That one is mine.’

In other words, Jesus is saying that, no matter what happens here, good or bad, we are claimed by God. We are his.

Life is not easy
Life is not easy, for anyone. That’s not the promise. And for those of us who want to follow Jesus, there will be additional burdens. As we reach out to the poor, as we sit next those in pain, as we take up the struggles of those who have no voice, as we challenge those in power, we will risk the dangers Jesus warned us about.

Yes, we pray for peace. Yes, we pray for healing. Yes, we pray for mercy. Yes, we pray for justice.

But these things are in God’s hands, not ours. They don’t belong to us as our right. And they don’t arrive in the form of a world cruise or a tropical island trip. We don’t win the lotto and give up the daily grind. That’s where the world finds its peace and joy and comfort – for a while, anyway.

In the middle of the darkness
For you and me, much more meaningful peace and joy and love are to be found not by running away but in the middle of the darkness and pain and suffering.

I’m pretty sure I could randomly point to people here, and they would tell us how they have found God to be most real and closest to them, when the darkness was the greatest, the pain the hardest to bear, the mountain impossible to climb.

Genesis 21
Let’s look at the Genesis reading for a moment. Genesis 21 is not Sarah and Abraham’s finest hour. It is a very dark moment.

Sarah and Abraham were never perfect examples of faith and saintliness. But God chose this broken, struggling couple and enabled them to become better than normal in critical moments of their lives because their greatest desire was to walk with God.

But they sure got it wrong at times. God promised them so much, but like us, they would take matters into their own hands and hurt themselves and others in the process.

Abraham and Hagar
Among other things, they decided to help God with his plan to give Abraham an heir. After all, time’s marching on. Abe’s already nearly 90. So they agree that he should sleep with Sarah’s maid Hagar and get his heir that way. We can’t point fingers. In thousands of years, we still don’t understand sex, and still we haven’t learned that there is no such thing as a one-night stand. The repercussions (baby or not) are long lasting.

When Sarah finally had her own son, Isaac, the true heir, all the bitterness and jealousy of the past ten years or so began to emerge and be dumped on Hagar and her son, Ishmael.

Hagar and Ishmael thrown out
Finally Sarah succeeds in having Hagar and Ishmael thrown out. But don’t blame Sarah. Abraham was no saint in this matter, and Sarah’s life had been hell. Be that as it may, Hagar is out in the wilderness with just enough food and water to take them out of sight but not enough to survive.

And when it was all gone, Hagar left Ishmael under a bush because she couldn’t bear to watch him die.

But God…
And then it happened. One of those, ‘But God,’ moments we come across so often in the Bible. They were dying; this was the end; they couldn’t take any more.

How many of you have been there, or are there now? Who do you know in the same boat?

They were finished, but…! God heard the boy crying.

Of course he did! Ismael was named for this moment. Ishmael means God hears. And God heard.

As Dawn Chesser put it:

God hears, even when we are alone in the wilderness
God hears, even when we don’t know what to say to God
God hears, even when the tension of living remains unresolved
God hears
(‘Preaching Notes’, General Board of Discipleship)

God opened her eyes
And God provides. Not that God brought banquet, or a tea trolley. He didn’t even bring a well. In verse 19: ‘God opened her eyes.’ She was able to see what was hidden by her pain and her tears. She could see the well, and as she drank, she began to see the way forward.

But they never left the wilderness. Terrible though it may seem, God didn’t rescue them from the wilderness. He helped them find a way to live in the wilderness, to live through the rejection and hate, to survive and prosper. Not what the world calls successful. Not the ‘happy ever after’ that Hollywood pretends money can buy. But peace and the presence of God and a promise still being fulfilled today.

There are people around us, like Hagar, desperate to find a well that will see them through, that will sustain them, that will give them hope. There are people in this church community; people in our neighbourhood; people at work and in our families. They are within touching distance of us, a phone call away.

Called to be a well
Jesus warns us that the journey will be tough and thankless. It’s not that we are trying to die, though that might happen. We are not looking for abuse, though that might come our way. We are here to help people find a well. To be a well to the people around us. To support, to sustain, to share the hope we have in Jesus.

The message for us and for the world around us is not that all will be bright and sunny.  But that God hears. God hears.

God hears
God hears you and me and the people around us as we cry to him in our own pain and for the pain of others. And we discover that his presence is worth far more than worldly wealth and peace. I can’t prove that to you, but there are people here who have discovered its truth for themselves and are living it out today.

As Chrystal Rodli, put it:

‘If we define success as having engaged in an honest pursuit of God’s heart, and having endeavoured to sacrificially give of ourselves and our resources (to further) the kingdom of God, then there is nothing that can stop us from being successful. The world may insult us, mock us, fight us, and hate us, but it cannot stop us.’
['Babylon the Great: in or out', Treasure Contained]

Which is just what Paul said in Romans 8:38, ‘Nothing can separate us from God’s love.’ Nothing.

Amen

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A prayer for Pentecost


Prayer used with the Pentecost Sunday sermon, 08 June 2014 (see here)

  Spirit of the living God,
  Fall afresh on us.
  Fill our hearts to overflowing
  and our fill lives with your joy and delight.

May our excitement and celebration
Move those around us to ask,
‘What’s happening? Are they drunk?’

  Spirit of the living God,
  Fall afresh on us.
  Fill our hearts to overflowing
  and fill our lives with your love and compassion.

May our patience and kindness become our identity,
So that those around us declare in wonder,
‘See how they love one another.’

  Spirit of the living God,
  Fall afresh on us.
  Fill our hearts to overflowing
  and fill our lives with your healing and forgiveness.

May your Kingdom be established in our praises.
So that those around us may call out to the Lord and be saved.

Amen

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A sermon for Pentecost Sunday – 8 June 2014


SCRIPTURE:    Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19–23

In I Corinthians 12, Paul writes about the various gifts of the Spirit. And out of this chapter and similar passages in Romans and elsewhere, a large industry has developed to help us discover our gifts. Fill out this form; take this quiz; answer these questions, and you will discover the gifts the Spirit has given you.

Assessment industry
Of course it is all part of the massive assessment industry. We have interest tests to determine what career we should pursue, aptitude tests to determine cognitive abilities, psychometric tests to check all sorts of things from IQ and EQ to management potential and job fit.

Now these are very useful tools in the business world. But the problem is that they all work on the basis of averages. The majority of sales people fit into this pattern. The majority of great managers fit this profile. Your profile suggests that you will have trouble in this area.

Such assessments are very helpful. But if you want your business, your NGO, your school, to be better than ordinary, then you want your employees to be better than ‘normal’. You don’t want ordinary employees that fit the ordinary profile; you want to find some extraordinary ones.

An apprentice
Let me give you a couple of examples from different ends of the employment spectrum. We were employing apprentices, and we settled on one particular person who simply didn’t fit the normal boxes for selection as an apprentice. She was a woman (a first in that position), ‘old’ for an apprentice and married. However she flew through every interview we had and impressed all the males who were interviewing her.

Trial period
We took her on for a trial period of three months to assess her before spending money sending her to college. During that time I sent her for formal assessments including numeracy and technical ability tests. The main test used by the industry has five areas of assessment, and she failed. I said to the managers that the test strongly suggested that she would fail her college exams. If we took her on and sent her to college, we would be wasting a huge amount of money, and a lot of our time, as well as about a year of her life.

The overwhelming response from the factory floor, from supervisors to senior management was, ‘We want her.’ She had made such an impression in the couple of months she had been with us, that they were all rooting for her. We decided to take the chance.

College
She went to college, struggled a bit, did a bit better and then sat her first exams. Her mother died the day before she wrote her first paper. And I thought, well that’s that. She might have pulled through by some miracle, but that chance has gone. However, the family held back the funeral; she continued to write that week, and passed comfortably. When I left the organisation, she was still flying and she was an asset to the company.  She didn’t fit the norm, but if you want your business to fly, employ someone better than normal.

A general manager
In an NGO I’m involved with we were looking for a General Manager to run the show. It’s an educational NGO so educational boxes had to be ticked; but it’s an NGO, so fundraising is critical. The person we liked didn’t have fundraising experience. We decided to take the risk. And you know what we have discovered over the past ten years? If your organisation is flying, if your organisation is doing extraordinary things, people want to be part of it. Through her passion for the children and her passion for education she has been able to draw an extraordinary team around her creating extraordinary results that (so far) donors have not been able to resist.

Better than normal
Our very normal concern for the very normal area of fundraising could not foresee that her extraordinary mix of passion and abilities, which wouldn’t fit onto a nice normal graph, would enable her to be better than normal and to achieve extraordinary results.

Paul says something similar in his message to the Corinthians about the gifts of the Spirit. And he says the same thing to the Romans and the Ephesians and anyone else he writes to about the gifts and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Focus on the Spirit
The confusion over the gifts and the work of the Spirit that has led to so much anger and bitterness in the Church doesn’t come from Paul. Paul is very clear when he writes about the Spirit. We are the ones who have confused matters. Paul, you see, doesn’t focus on the gifts. Paul focusses on the Spirit who gives the gifts; the Spirit who equips the people of God.

We focus on the gifts
We, on the other hand, focus on the gifts. We think it’s the gifts that are important. (It’s certainly the more spectacular thing; and we love the spectacular.) So we look at what everyone else has got and what everyone else is doing, and we assess ourselves against we think is the ‘norm’; what we think we ought to look like if we have the Spirit. Do we fit the pattern? Do we fit the graph? Are we ‘normal’?

But the work of the Spirit is not normal; it doesn’t fit into a pattern that can be measured and sorted and bottled and charted on a graph.

God is doing extraordinary things through his extraordinary Spirit working through ordinary people. In Acts 2, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel:

‘(17) I will pour out my Spirit on everyone. Your sons and daughters will proclaim my message; your young men will see visions, and your old men will have dreams. (18) Yes, even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will proclaim my message. (19) I will perform miracles in the sky above and wonders on the earth below. There will be blood, fire, and thick smoke; (20) the sun will be darkened, and the moon will turn red as blood, before the great and glorious Day of the Lord comes.  (21) And then, whoever calls out to the Lord for help will be saved.’

John van de Laar writes about a new understanding of the book of Acts. He says: ‘(Re-reading Acts) has convinced me that the essence of Pentecost is not the outpouring of the Spirit – as if the Spirit was somehow absent before this day – but the simple, profound changes in the lives of ordinary people whose ordinary lives changed their cities and their world.’

Make us better than normal
You see, it’s not about how many prophets there are or preachers or tongues or this gift or that. But will we welcome the Spirit of God to do whatever he wants to do in us and through us? Not give us this gift or that, but to make us better than normal in our everyday lives, and to do his extraordinary work in us and through us, day after day after day.

Measure
And we can actually measure this extraordinary work of God in our lives. Oh no, not on a graph based on the gifts we have or the power of our preaching or how often we speak in tongues. Not even by the number of people we have converted or how long we spend on our knees.

Paul made it clear in Galatians 5: the measure of the Spirit’s work in our lives and in the life of our community is how much the fruit of the Spirit can be seen in us and experienced in our life together. Is love what we experience here? Is there joy and peace? Are we more patient with each other (and with taxi drivers)? Is there kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness? Is there less anger and more self-control?

1 Corinthians 14:12, ‘Since you are eager to have the gifts of the Spirit, you must try above everything else to make greater use of those which help to build up the church.’

And again, in Ephesians 4:12, Paul says the Lord gives these gifts ‘to prepare all God’s people for the work of Christian service, in order to build up the body of Christ.’

Love one another
You see, Jesus told us how the world would be saved, but we tend to ignore him, or not to take him too seriously. Jesus said that the way Christians relate to each other will determine the way the world reacts to our Saviour. (‘By your love for one another ….’  ‘Father, make them one ….’)

It is when the people of God hate each other and fight each other and deride each other, that the world turns its back on the church and on the God we supposedly serve. And it is when the people of God love one another, care for one another and do extraordinary things together that the world looks on in wonder and says, ‘See how they love one another.’

‘What does it mean?’
And then they will go on to ask the question they asked the disciples on the first Christian Pentecost: ‘What does it mean?’

Of course, they might go on to ask, ‘Are they drunk?’ But that’s okay. They are just trying to fit us into the patterns they know and recognise.

In fact, I would rather they asked us if we were drunk. Because I’m very much afraid that the communities around the church today are more likely to ask, ‘Are they alive?’

What do you do?
My friends, let me ask you. What is it that you do that supports the people of God, that encourages individuals, that helps someone who is struggling to take one more step? I encourage you to pray tonight for God to give you an opportunity this week to do just that – whatever it is that you do so well for him already.

What gets in the way?
And then a second prayer: what is it that you do that gets in the way of God’s love in your life and in your community? Are you prone to criticise people? Is there irritation and anger in you? Do you put people down, gossip or fail to notice people. Normal human reactions, I know. But I encourage you to pray with me tonight for God to give us strength this week to say no to whatever it is that divides or hurts or destroys. Just this week, for God to help you and me to be better than normal in the service of the Kingdom.

[Prayer to follow]

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The spirit of Easter: A sermon for Easter 2


Easter 2 – Freedom Day

SCRIPTURE:    Acts 2:14a, 22–32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3–9; John 20:19–31

The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed.

Today is the second Sunday of Easter; the day Jesus appeared again to his disciples in the upper room, and in particular, to Thomas.

Today is, of course, also Freedom Day (South Africa’s 20th ‘birthday’). I think that South Africans in 1994 had a lot in common with those who were around Jesus.

Change
The difficulty that the Jews had with Jesus – whether they were part of the establishment, or Zealots working against the status quo or the disciples themselves – the problem they had didn’t lie with Jesus, but with what they expected from their Messiah: what he should look like, how they expected him act, what he would teach.

That the Messiah would change the status quo was pretty much a given, whatever party you belonged to. But to what extent, and how ruthlessly was up for grabs. Much the same as South Africa in the early 90s. Apartheid had to go. That was a given for everyone, except for a few diehard denialists. But how it was to go and what would take its place was very much under discussion (to put it politely). Continue reading

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A meditation for Easter Sunday


This was my contribution to Prestbury Methodist Church’s  2013 Lenten Diary. The word was ‘Lamb’. (See previous post.)

Reading. John 1:29
The next day John (the Baptist) saw Jesus coming to him, and said, ‘There is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’

Meditation
The Lord is risen.
The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, is risen.
Lord, take away the sin of violence and terror that is tearing our world apart; the sin of greed and corruption that destroys trust, tarnishes every transaction and threatens to rot our society to the core; the sin of pride and arrogance that perceives love as weakness and self-sacrifice as foolishness.

The Lord is risen.
The Lamb of God, who takes away my sin, is risen.
Lord, take away the pride and arrogance and, yes, the violence within me. Help me to listen when you tell me that ambition is becoming an excuse for selfishness and greed. Warn me when confidence and conviction provide cover for pride and arrogance.

When Andrew heard John’s words, he found out where you were staying, called his brother and he followed you for the rest of his life. Lord, I hear the same call. Help me to follow.

The Lord is risen.
He is risen indeed!

Prayer
Lord, you are alive. You are alive to my sin and to my brokenness. You are alive to the sin of the world and to its desperate cries for help. Forgive me, Lord. Fill me with your love and use me as an instrument of your risen power, today and every day. Amen.

See also:
Easter: The act of God that changes everything — Lenten Diary 2013
Easter Sunday: Is “Amen” the end, or just the beginning? — Lenten Diary 2012

 

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A meditation for Easter Saturday


Each year about 40 members of Prestbury Methodist Church each write a meditation or two for our Lenten Diary on a given theme. This year, each day focused a single word. This was my contribution for Easter Saturday. The word was ‘Tomb’. My Easter Sunday contribution will be published tomorrow.

Reading: John 19:38-42
After this, Joseph, who was from the town of Arimathea, asked Pilate if he could take Jesus’ body. (Joseph was a follower of Jesus, but in secret, because he was afraid of the Jewish authorities.) Pilate told him he could have the body, so Joseph went and took it away.  (39)  Nicodemus, who at first had gone to see Jesus at night, went with Joseph, taking with him about one hundred pounds of spices, a mixture of myrrh and aloes.  (40)  The two men took Jesus’ body and wrapped it in linen cloths with the spices according to the Jewish custom of preparing a body for burial.  (41)  There was a garden in the place where Jesus had been put to death, and in it there was a new tomb where no one had ever been buried.  (42)  Since it was the day before the Sabbath and because the tomb was close by, they placed Jesus’ body there.

Meditation
We have reached the end of our journey and here we are, outside a tomb. Is this where it ends? We place your body in a tomb? We keep you in a place where we can access you when we need to, leave you when we want to, think about you when it’s convenient and ignore you when it suits us?

Lord we confess that, as we do with the legacy of other great leaders, we have taken your legacy, kept the bits we like and left the rest in the tomb. We have not allowed you to change us, challenge us or lead us to new places.

Tomorrow we will celebrate your release from the tomb, your resurrection. What then? We will have no control over you. You will be in charge. When you tell us to love our neighbour, we won’t be able to um and ah. We won’t be able to play around with the words ‘love’ and ‘neighbour’ to weasel out of the plain meaning: love your neighbour. You will be there to point the way. Your words will not mean what we want them to mean, but what you mean. Am I ready for tomorrow? Am I ready for the sunrise of a new day and a new relationship with you?

Prayer
Lord Jesus, please help us use this day to prepare our hearts for tomorrow. Prepare us for your sunrise call to new beginnings. Make us ready to follow, not your legacy, but you as you are, as you continually reveal yourself to be, new every morning. Amen.

___________________________________________

See also:

Easter Saturday: Joseph, the secret follower — Lenten Diary 2013
Lent Diary 2012: Easter Saturday and Handel’s Messiah — Lenten Diary 2012

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